Early in the morning on September 15, negotiators from unions representing nearly 60,000 rail workers reached a tentative agreement with the nation’s rail carriers. The provisional accord avoided what would have been the first national rail shutdown since the early 1990s. The Biden administration released a statement hailing the agreement as an “important win for our economy and the American people” and a “victory for railway companies who will be able to retain and recruit more workers” with better wage-and-hour terms and improved conditions for sick days.
But the rail workers’ fight for a fair contract is far from over. The members of the rail unions still have to review the agreement and decide if they want to ratify it. If members reject the deal, then it’s back to the drawing board, with a threatened strike once more in the foreground.
The confrontation with railroad owners and managers is, by any just reckoning, long overdue. Years of willful mismanagement have eroded basic workplace protections for the beleaguered workforce that keeps the railroads running. Over the past five years, the Class I freight rail carriers (rail companies with annual revenue of over $940 million) have laid off more than 30 percent of their workforce—with most of the layoffs coming over the pandemic. Some carriers have also instituted draconian attendance policies compelling workers to be on call 24/7, while making it impossible for workers to get time off for potential emergencies, treatment for medical issues, or even to attend the births of their own children. Rail workers, like many other employees contending with pandemic-driven management crackdowns, were forced to weigh the benefits of a steady paycheck against basic considerations of health and quality of life.
Management’s unyielding hours demands, combined with a push for reducing crew sizes from two workers to one while increasing the length of each train, made for a brutal new status quo for rail workers. In the throes of the pandemic, rail companies across the country sought to maximize profits and squeeze higher productivity from their already overburdened workers—at the cost of basic quality-of-life guarantees on the job.
Indeed, it was the rail carriers’ fierce allegiance to this indecent work regimen that drew out the already delayed contract negotiations into a stalemate earlier this year. Both parties appealed to the federal National Mediation Board to try to break the impasse, to no avail. Finally, in July, the NMB declared that negotiations had officially stalled out, and set the provisions of the Railway Labor Act into motion. In July, President Biden appointed a Presidential Emergency Board to assess the state of the conflict and tender recommendations to resolve it.
But the unions chafed at the recommendations, chiefly because they didn’t represent significant movement on the disputed sick leave and quality-of-life provisions. This was the basic standoff that preceded Thursday’s tentative agreement, just ahead of the strike deadline at the end of the week.
The details of the new accord aren’t yet public, but we have a sense of some of the key provisions, as outlined by the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) and the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers union (SMART-TD). The proposed terms include a 24 percent increase in wages over the five years covered by the contract, together with annual lump-sum bonus payments totaling $5,000. The agreement also introduces no downgrades to members’ health care plans, and institutes a health insurance premium freeze at the end of the contract term to allow for negotiations on the next national agreement.
The agreement also addresses the sticking point for the unions—the inhumane working conditions that force workers to remain on call 24/7 while deprived of the option to take paid sick leave for family or medical emergencies. The proposed contract would grant workers leave to meet these demands without running afoul of the rail carriers’ attendance mandate. The rail workers unions also managed to secure one more paid day off for workers. “The solidarity shown by our members, essential workers to this economy who keep America’s freight trains moving, made the difference in our Unions obtaining agreement provisions that exceeded the recommendations of the Presidential Emergency Board,” BLET and SMART-TD said in a joint statement. “We listened when our members told us that a final agreement would require improvements to their quality of life as well as economic gains.”
The initial reactions online from workers have been mixed—though until members have the chance to review the details of the agreement, it’s unclear how the vote will go. In the meantime, the Biden administration won’t have to contend with a potentially devastating rail strike amid the heat of the 2022 midterm campaign—and rail workers, for their part, have at least seen the value of standing their ground in a grinding face-off over basic wage-and-hour and quality-of-life assurances on the job.